After the ceremonies described in the last three posts we had one more task to complete before we went home. In the ANSF after action report on the ambush of Haji Nematullah, they reported seizing three large buckets of Home Made Explosives (HME) and three “milled metal devices with explosives inside”. We had no idea what they meant and were afraid they might be Explosively Formed Penetrator (EFP) mines. EFP’s were a big problem in Iraq and their source of origin is Iran. Iran being about 1/2 mile away from our safe house in Zaranj we took this report seriously and wanted to see them for ourselves. We also submit reports to the Marines at Camp Leatherneck when we get to verify stuff like this not because they asked to but as a courtesy on the off chance they too were wondering what the three “milled metal devices with explosives inside” were. We have no idea if they already know what we are reporting but it seems like the right thing to do.
On our last day in Zaranj we headed over the Provincial ANP headquarters to talk with the provincial commanders of the Afghan national Police (ANP) and National Directorate for Security (NDS) and to inspect the explosives recovered from the October 5th ambush.
After talking with the Chief of Police we went out to inspect the take from last weeks ambush in their explosives locker.
What we had come to see is what was described as a “milled metal device with explosives inside” and that turned out to be true except they were not EFP’s; they were artillery fuses.
That was good news – EFP’s are a devastatingly effective weapon able to easily penetrate military grade armor. I have not heard of them being in Afghanistan but I checked with The Bot who had heard of one being found around Ghazni last year. A flood of them entering Afghanistan would be alarming to put it mildly.
As we walked back towards our vehicles Mike Yon asked our escort – one of the local NDS men who spoke English – what else they needed and he replied “somebody to fix our trucks”.
We continued on to find the Chief of Police having a Press Conference about a recent drug bust.
I appeared on the Aloyna Show last week and talked to the current conventional wisdom about the need to keep some sort of military presence in Afghanistan for the next 10 years. A link to that show is here and my segment starts around the 34 minute mark.
Our military is a big cumbersome leviathan designed to do one thing and one thing only; crush other nation state armies. Our military is good at killing bad guys. But killing bad guys is the easy part of war. It is everything else you have to do simultaneously that’s the hard part. We once knew how to do the “other things besides killing people” part of expeditionary warfare but that was long ago when the units dispatched half way around the world took a month or two to get there and remained in country for the duration. Our military can’t do that anymore – contractors can (stay in the same Province for years and years) and in doing so could fill in for fighting infantry but then you are outsourcing the fighting to mercenaries and have little reason to maintain such a large force structure.
If I remember my Roman History correctly Rome started down the road to ruin when they became unwilling to bear the burden of military service and outsourced fighting to Barbarian tribes. We have not reached that point. I know the Marine Corps is currently so flush with tier one (99.9% of the current pool) enlistment applicants that the wait for boot camp is 7 months minimum. The wait for candidates entering the officer training pipeline is over a year. We still produce the men needed for our military force structure but the amount of money it takes to do so is ridiculous. Using what the Romans called Auxilia for contingency operations makes perfect sense from a financial and political point of view and I support it 100% but our elites won’t.
When you are unable to do what is important, the unimportant becomes important which is why we spend millions to fly 5 pound bags of crushed ice from Saudi Arabia to our FOB’s. I saw that in Nangarhar – in Helmand there is an ice plant on Camp Bastion run by the Brits but the Marines I rode around with did not have coolers full of ice, which was mandatory with the American army units in Nangarhar. The Vietnam War may not be the best example of doing things right, but my father spent 13 months fighting in Leatherneck Square and the Arizona Territory of Northern I Corps (on the DMZ between South and North Vietnam). In all that time he saw ice once – it was flown in off a Navy ship – but by the time they had divided it evenly among the rifle companies it had mostly melted. Today crushed ice for coolers full of expensive sports drinks and bottled water is considered essential for troop morale.
There are Marines and soldiers in Afghanistan now who man small patrol bases and never see hot chow; let alone ice. I blogged about them in the past. But the guys (and now gals) who are out at pointy end of spear are at most 4% of our deployed military. Everyone else gets ice on demand and has access to unlimited amounts of high quality chow, pecan pie and ice cream.
The press rarely tells the story of the small minority of deployed troops who live, fight and die in conditions their forefathers would recognize unless it involves some sort of tragedy. I read one of the best pieces in this genre this morning in the Wall Street Journal. The story was well told and as supportive of the fighting men as such a piece can be. The journalist who wrote it played the story straight and did a fantastic job with such a tragic topic.
Yet by far, the most common story line concerning the troops deployed to Afghanistan are like this piece, which claims half of the vets returning from Afghanistan need medical treatment for the lingering effects of blasts and psychological trauma. At the very most 15% of those deployed to Afghanistan ever leave the FOB so how can half of them be so damaged?
Do I sound conflicted to you? I know I do, and it will take some distance to get things in perspective. And distance is what I have; I’m back in the US staying with friends while undergoing treatment for the lingering effects of a blast injury. Ironic, I know, given what I just wrote above. I am clean shaven, wearing normal American clothes no longer hear the call to prayer being blasted from speakers all over town five times a day. I miss hearing that call and don’t know why but I really miss it. That is so strange but it is and it is also nice to be back home.
While we were occupied in Zaranj our esteemed Secretary of State declared we were switching tactics. The new tactic will be “Fight, Talk, Build” and if you have no idea what those words could possibly mean welcome to the club. “Fight, Hold, Build” I could understand, but the Fight, Talk part – that is a little hard to believe. It’s not like we haven’t been talking to the Pakistan Government, The ISI, President Karzai, The Afghanistan Government, The Taliban; Impostors of Taliban etc.. for years. Maybe its just me but it seems that the talking has not gotten us very far . And now even the New York Times has caught up to Baba Tim on its opinion page wondering if maybe Pakistan might sort of maybe not be our friend after all.
And the optimism in my last post? Apparently misplaced; we are not reinforcing troops on the border but instead we are withdrawing them and turning the border forts over to the Afghans. Then there is this unfortunate topic; the firing of MajGen Peter Fuller for having the audacity to tell the truth about President Karzai and the Afghan government. General Allen had this to say about the firing:
“These unfortunate comments and neither indicative of our current solid relationship with the government of Afghanistan, its leadership, or our joint commitment to prevail here in Afghanistan,” Allen declared in an official statement.
“The Afghans are an honorable people. Comments such as these (by Gen. Fuller), will not keep us from accomplishing our most critical and shared mission – bringing about a stable, peaceful and prosperous Afghanistan.”
The Afghans are an honorable people but that has nothing to do with what Gen. Fuller said. What about the scandal of wounded Afghan soldiers, unable to bribe nurses at the Afghan Military Hospital in Kabul for food, being allowed to starve to death. One could ask why the general in charge of that debacle hasn’t been fired? The American Army funds the place, built it, equipped it and are supposed to be “mentoring” their Afghan counterparts there. Patients are starving to death in a military hospital we built and equipped and help run and that’s just the cost of doing business and therefore OK but negative comments about the Karzai regime from an American general are a problem?
Why spend another moment on these dreary topics when better material is at hand. The closing of the Zaranj City Infrastructure Rehabilitation Project was completed with the opening of their brand new sports complex. We built this along with a bunch of other infrastructure for the municipal authorities for (in the big scheme of USAID things) peanuts.
After a few fighting demonstrations Governor Barahwi stood; said a few words to the assembled teams and was off. We were right behind him and I have to admit it was a bittersweet afternoon. Saying my goodbyes to all the elders and officials who worked with and supported us over the years was tough. We were pulling out and nothing is coming in behind us. As I said in my last post these people are now on their own but late that evening some of them dropped off a gift.
The beer felt like it just came out of a pizza oven is was so hot so we threw it into the two freezers we have up on the second deck and waited for an hour. But it turned out we were on city power which isn’t strong enough to run the freezers so now the beer had brought everything in them to room temperature. I went downstairs and tell the night guards to turn on the big generator so we can run the freezers. They said no because they can only run the big generator for eight hours a day and are not supposed to turn it on for another three hours. I ask who told them that and they said “you did”. I explained that we have a case of beer but can’t get it cold and it was an emergency. They knew that and said they were not turning on the generator. I threatened to shoot them but they laughed at me and countered with a request for two beers each before turning on the generator. I smiled the wolf smile and threatened to call Zabi down because his Dad is the senior Mullah for the Province and no fan of demon rum. They balked and turned on the big gen but I gave them each a beer anyway just for being good sports.
We started drinking them down warm; the last few were chilled but this was typical – nothing and I mean nothing is easy in this country, yet somehow things always work out. The parting gift was a considerate gesture – we’re going miss our friends in Zaranj.
I’m back in my compound after attending a bunch of ceremonies in Zaranj marking the end of our efforts in Nimroz Province. When we flew in last week the skies were dark and it rained that night. The next morning was clear as a bell making for excellent photography and perfect weather for what turned out to be 15 hours of driving through the Dasht-e Margo (Desert of Death). Our mission that day was the dedication ceremony for the Charborjak Irrigation system which we had built, mostly with shovels, wheelbarrows and lots of man power, over the previous 11 months. We had originally scheduled the ceremony for the 5th of October but changed the date at the last minute. On the 5th there was an ambush waiting for us; when we moved out last Thursday we were a mobile ambush looking for anyone who was looking for us.
The Provincial Governor of Nimroz Province is Al Haji Karim Barahwi and those of you who have read this blog know I’m a big fan of his. He’s a graduate of the Kabul Military Academy and served in the Afghan Army as an officer until the Soviets invaded. Governor Barahwi then became a Muj commander who fought the entire war without any help from the United States. He was working out of Iran and obviously had a little help from them despite the fact that he is not too happy with Iran at the moment. The trip he took us on was remarkable because we did not go the way we have always gone to Cahrborjak; we jumped the Helmand and moved deep into the desert where the Governor wanted to show us something. This story is best told through pictures and I have around 1800 from that one drive alone. So stand by for a story told the Marine way – lots of pictures, no big words, and no cussing. I was an officer in the Marines and know that cussing is good for morale, but only enlisted men rate morale, so, only they can cuss with impunity. Officers are supposed to find more appropriate language to record observations, write reports, etc… My Dad reminded me of this fact due to my proclivity for inserting colorful language in my posts – which, for the record, I think is (word deleted) but I’m trying to talk him into writing for the blog and therefore am compelled to entertain him.
Along the way back to Zaranj we stopped at the village where Governor Barahwi was born and raised. It was slightly bigger than this one. We also stopped at the village of the ANP soldier who was killed in the ambush last week. We did not take pictures in either place and we hung out in the village of the ANP soldier for a good hour or so too, paying respects as it were. It was a great day and my camera battery died after I took this picture so it is time for analysis and commentary.
The kerfuffle over the dam being built is an interesting contrast between two styles of doing the “build” part of the current Afghanistan plan. There are direct implementors like us who take USAID money and use it according to the priorities of the Provincial and District governments. We did not build anything new – we restored a check dam and a major irrigation intake that had been destroyed back in the 80’s. We used the same plans and the same engineers who built those irrigation systems back before the Soviets arrived and depopulated the rural areas of southwestern Afghanistan. The provincial irrigation department coordinated with their national level counterparts in Kabul on every step of this project and sent in regular progress reports. We also employed every man who could handle a shovel in the district for almost a year which is the whole point to cash for work programs.
The dozens of very senior, highly credentialed people who reacted with great emotion boarding on distress when they found out about this project are the other side of the coin. These are people who have been given a great deal of authority yet have no responsibility for tangible on the ground results. They never leave the FOB’s and never see anything of the country except what they can see while flying over it. There is a PhD hydrologist working for the USG and also coordinating with a British subject matter expert to come up with the Helmand Water Shed Master Plan. I am sure they are professionals who take their work seriously and spend 12 hours a day on the computers doing I have no idea what. But, good intentions are meaningless and the hundreds of millions of dollars being spent to bring people like that to Afghanistan and keeping them here for a year might as well be thrown into a rubbish bin. Do they honestly think that when we leave here their “master plan” will be worth more than a cup of warm of spit? How can smart people be so stupid?
The Helmand River Valley will never reach its full potential unless every farmers field is dug up, the clay removed, and proper drainage put in its place. We discovered that back in the 1960’s when Lashkar Gha was called “Little America” and the State Department was trying to salvage the disaster that was the original Hellmand River Valley project run by the engineering firm Morrison Knudsen. Since the completion of that project local farmers have irrigated their fields by flooding them. The NGO I work for tried to introduce drip irrigation to the local farmers years ago but they pulled the hoses out of the ground and started using them to tether sheep and goats. The only way to water a field is to flood it; everybody knows that, and that is exactly what the farmers told the men who showed them how to use drip irrigation 8 years ago. You cannot force change on Afghan farmers any easier than you can force change in Americas’ two-party political system. Proving that drip irrigation is efficient and works better turned out to be completely irrelevant; if proving yourself right mattered the entire Helmand River Valley would be using drip irrigation and about 1/3 of the water they are currently using to water their crops.
Not that using less water is a big deal because, as any Afghan sod buster will tell you, that just means more water for the Iranians. Water is a zero sum game for Helmand Valley farmers; changing that mind set is not going to happen in my life time….or yours.
Last year Michael Yon visited our Nimroz projects and put up an interesting post called Please don’t forget us. He was writing about a massive women’s training program we ran that year because Zaranj has a more Persian culture, woman can drive in Zaranj, work outside the home and attend training courses without any problems. We tried to do an even bigger woman’s training program this year but we’re rejected. The woman had already been forgotten and this year’s crew in Kabul wanted “capacity building” which is the new buzzword on the FOB’s. For 1/10th of the cost of keeping just one hydrologist in this country for a year, and I’m talking the million bucks of life support and security costs, not the salary or cost of mobilization which would easily add another million to the sum, for 1/10th of that we could have trained 300 woman and sent them on their way with the tools they needed (Sewing Machines, beauty salon equipment, wool and weaving boards etc..) to start their own business.
I know I sound like a broken record. It just seems like it is always one step forward and two steps back around here. My PM Bashir is now gone having moved on to bigger and better things. I’m right behind him as my time living here is rapidly coming to an end. The people of Zaranj have already been forgotten and are now on their own.
It doesn’t have to be this way and probably will never be this way again because we can’t afford to spend 2 billion dollars per week (according to last nights 60 minutes segment) to field an army of fobbits. We have no business foisting a “watershed master plan” on the Afghans – it’s their country, their river, and their breadbasket and when allowed to do so they will build things back to the way they were. It may not be optimal, there may be inefficiencies in the system that a PhD hydrologist could fix (if she had freedom of movement and actually spent time on the river) but who cares? What is going to remain when we leave is an Afghan system, built by and for Afghans and to be honest, I have no idea why we think we should be bringing all these “subject matter experts” over here in the first place. Who are we to dictate to them how to manage their own natural resources? We should send all the hydrologists back to America to aid in a gigantic shovel ready program I’d like to see started called “Get all our oil from Alaska and the Western States Project”. There is where we should be spending 2 billion a week and we’d even see a return on our investment. How strange would that be?
I am in the middle of an interesting few days as we finish up our larger projectsvwith official ceremonies. Those of you who follow Michael Yon on facebook know where I am and what we have been up to. What is interesting to watch is Michael, myself and our friend (and co-worker) Chadd Nyerges, trying to process the thousands of pictures and a dozen hours of video we collectively shot over the past 48 hours. We are all writing reports, posting on the internet, trying to figure out what we have with all these photos and waiting for the plane to come back and get us.
The place for me to start my narrative of the trip is right in the middle. Yesterday morning we found out none of the State Department folks or Marines from Leatherneck would attend the ceremonies. This made me the senior American present a fact which I failed to think through before walking into the reception hall for the morning program of recognition for the US AID in general and my company specifically. As I entered the hall my Afghan provincial manager, Bashir greeted me with most unwelcome news. “You are the senior man, Tim; you have to sit next to the Governor.” I said that would be fine, but I needed to find the men’s room first. Bashir said that was not possible, and I had to go to my seat “right now.”
So I’m stuck in place, and I know that if I get up and the Governor shows up and I amble on over to sit next to him after he has sat down…that would just not do, so I wait.
As I sat, concentrating on positive energy for the test of wills that was to come, Deputy Provincial Governor Haji Qasem Khedry walked in, said his greeting to us and sat down next to me. The clock had finally started, and I settled in, determined to hang tough. A number of community elders came up to praise the US-funded Community Development Program and the management team in Nimroz, headed by Bashir Sediqi, who is my best provincial manager.
I was pretty confident we were at least half way through the schedule of events when fate intervened in the form of an unfortunate event which allowed me to make a brief graceful exit.
Once I caught the commotion over my right shoulder and recognized there was a medical emergency, I took immediate action. I bolted toward Bashir and pointed to the man saying, “He needs a doctor, and where is the toilet?” Bashir said, “Downstairs to the left.” I flew down the stairs with Mike Yon in hot pursuit. “Do you know where the men’s room is?” he asked. I told him we were on the way and stayed in front in case it was only one stall. But it wasn’t – there were plenty of open toilets, as we had beaten the rush down to them. We were back before the ceremony re-started, and I resumed my post.
During the past three years, we have accomplished some amazing projects. I’ll be posting in detail about two of them in the near future. What is important to remember, as we close down our Nimroz operations and move on, is that all the projects we did in Nimroz were conceived by, designed by and built by Afghans. As the only American in the lash-up, my role was limited to minor writing of reports and moving money for paydays. The Boss was the man with the vision to tell USAID we could go down to Zaranj and work, and he proved he was right. I know I sound like a broken record, but I am trying to point out how easy it is to get things done in this country when you know what you’re doing. And if you know what you are doing in Afghanistan, you will never walk into some public awards ceremony without first visiting the men’s room. I now remember that I once knew that, bet I don’t forget it again anytime soon.
Yesterday morning there was a running gunfight spanning 100 kilometers on the Nimroz Province side of the Dasht-e Margo (Desert of Death.) It started just outside the little hamlet of Qala Fath, which is home to the only reliable source of drinking water near Zaranj and also houses this spectacular walled city which once guarded a portion of the Silk Road. Or it guarded the water source; or something else; because nobody in Nimroz Province has a clue when it was built or by whom.
The fight started when Haji Mehedin, the commander of the Afghan Highway Police, turned off the Lashkary Canal road heading towards Qala Fath. Once you exit the Lashkary road you enter into a canyon with 30 to 40 foot high sandstone cliffs right next to the single track road, and this is the one area in southern Nimroz Province I hate driving through, because it is too easy to ambush vehicle traffic from almost point blank range. Haji Mehedin was alone and saw a vehicle with armed men about 100 meters down the track to his front. The armed men fired warning shots into the air. Haji Mehedin grabbed his rifle and started firing at the men in front of him. He was then engaged from his right flank by an RPG and more small arms fire. He conducted a one man fighting withdrawal back to the Lashkary Canal road where he linked up with a two-man ANP guard post and called for the Quick Reaction Force (QRF) from Zaranj. The ANA and ANP and every Highway Patrolman in the area converged on Haji Mehedin within an hour, and the chase was on. The road in that part of the province heads one way – into Charborjak District, running about 110 kilometers astride the Helmand River, where it ends at the start of a massive irrigation project we just finished last week.
The posse found Haji Mehdin’s police truck, which did not make it far because its radiator had been shot up. The villains apparently set it on fire and were now crammed into one Hi Lux truck. The posse fanned out and raced across the Dasht-e Margo in pursuit.
The villains’ vehicle broke down about 14 kilometers outside of the Charborjak District Center, and they abandoned it, leaving behind large quantities of explosives and ammunition. The QRF fanned out and started heading toward the highlands, away from the Helmand River. The villians then struck with a pretty impressive RPG shot which killed the driver of one of the ANP trucks. That shot was the villains’ undoing, as dozens and dozens of trucks loaded with infantry, cops, and highway patrolmen moved in for the kill. And kill they did – 9 of the 11 insurgents died on the spot. Two got away but were leaking blood, and they headed into the desert where chances of survival are slim. They carried no identification papers, were clearly not local people, and the best guess is they were Pashtuns from the South.
The total weapon count from this group was 11 AK 47s, one RPG with 8 rounds, a few pistols, two plastic jugs full of HME (home made explosives) and an old PPSh-41 submachinegun. The PPSh-41 fires a 7.62x25mm pistol round from a drum magazine; it is an open bolt weapon, just like the Uzi and the old American M3 Grease Gun, but it has a dangerous design flaw. If the bolt is forward on an empty chamber with a full magazine inserted into the magazine well, the gun has an annoying habit of going off if you’re riding in a truck which is bouncing along on poorly maintained dirt roads. The Americans, for this exact reason, modified their M3 Grease Guns by attaching a peg to the bolt and cutting a groove for the peg in the ejection port cover, which prevents the bolt from functioning as long as the cover is closed . Older Afghan men who know a little bit about weapons hate the PPSh subgun, and it is interesting that this group of scumbags had one. They really suck.
There are several things about this story which interest me. The first is that my guys and I, and the Provincial Governor, and a well known journalist were supposed be on that road yesterday morning to conduct the opening ceremony for our irrigation project. That project employed every working age male in the district, and because we dug most of it by hand, we kept these men employed for almost a full year. More importantly, we built reinforced concrete intakes, water control points and three bypass sections, allowing for portions of the canal to be closed for repairs as needed. Most importantly, we did not dig secondary canals. We said up front we could bring the water inland but bringing that water to farmers’ fields was their job, not ours; and keeping the main canal up and running is again their job, not ours. I’m a little proud of that given the number of times local men came up to me to ask if we could dig a canal into their village and I just laughed and said no. Politely – I’m a culturally sensitive guy.
Given the way the villains were set up, they could have intended to ambush the rather large convoy heading out to the ceremony. I honestly now wish we hadn’t changed the date – 11 knuckleheads with AKs, one RPG launcher and a dog of a subgun? Given the number of ANP who were going to be with us, I’d take those odds any day. I have the flame stick dialed in for 300 meters and this may have been my only chance to bust a cap into a real honest to God villain. Besides, we would have moved through there hours before noon, so I’m not so sure this was an attempt on the governor’s life, which is what the buzz on the street is saying. Had these 11 idiots brought along a heavy machinegun or two that would be a different story; nobody wants to get caught in a narrow draw while being stitched up by machinegunners who, at that close distance, would have had to try really hard to miss. Had we not been traveling with the governor’s escort, we would have never entered the draw – we use multiple outriders who would have alerted us long before we got there. We have one drill for potential ambushes – and that drill is called turn around and run. We’re not here for gun play, and despite a long year of moving low-pro throughout the most dangerous provinces in this country, the Ghost Team record of never being ambushed stands. Except for that time Crazy Horse got lit up in Paktiya, but he was with Chief Ajmal Khan, and it wasn’t that big of an ambush, so I’m still thinking technically we have a 100% movement success rate.
But here is something else of interest – Haji Mehedin is a Baloch (most of southern Nimroz is Baloch), and they, for the most part, dislike Pashtuns and hate the Taliban. Haji Mehedin has also not been to one of the multimillion dollar regional training centers where they cram powerpoint classes about things which an Afghan policeman will never do, would hardly understand, and couldn’t care less about. He doesn’t need instruction from US Department of State contractors to tell him what to do to bring order and the rule of law (Afghan style – which is a little different than the standards in western law enforcement) in his own damn district. Which is, of course, another great point – it is his district, where he grew up and knows all the residents. Do you think men like Haji Mehedin will tolerate his troopers shaking down truck drivers and other civilians for pocket change?
Back in World War I, the British had a problem, and that problem was German agents were moving through Balochistan and into Afghanistan where they were trying to get some traction and allies to fight with them. Three of the four major Baloch tribes had gone over to the German side when the Germans told them their country had converted to Islam and that they had giant airships which travel around the world leaving death and destruction in their wake.
The British sent out what they had: a lone Colonel, his London born driver and 23 Sepoy’s (Indian infantry) who had not been trained or issued any weapons. I read the Colonel’s fascinating account of how he bluffed the insurgent Baloch tribes into coming back to the British side by telling them he led a huge army and had mountain guns, and all the holes in the radiator grill of his now beat up car were machinegun barrels with which he could kill them all in the blink of an eye. These bluffs, as bluffs always do, did not last long, but by then the Colonel (who had promoted himself to general, so he had more juice with the natives) did get a couple of mountain guns. He also got a cavalry troop with a British officer, a squad of Seapoys who were trained and had rifles, and I think maybe a machinegun platoon – I returned the book to its owner and now have to go on memory. Once he had a little firepower behind him, the now-General summoned a few of the rebel chiefs to his mud brick fort, had a quick military tribunal, found the lot guilty and ordered them to be hanged in the morning. One of the bandit chief’s wives – reportedly the most beautiful woman in Balochistan – asked the General to come to her camp, where she presented him with a magnificent white horse (it was his horse and had been stolen earlier in the year.) She promised him that her husband would never again fight against the Raj or the crown and would from that day forward be a trusted ally.
That’s about as far as I got in the book before I had to return it to its owner – so B, be a good friend and fill us in after you read this. I’m pretty sure the bandit chief turned around and attacked the small garrison after his stay of execution and subsequent release, which prompted the British General (his self-promotion was approved during his first year there) to mobilize his army. That army was a few infantry, one field gun, a cavalry troop and 600 camels, and they marched to the winter camping grounds of the tribe, where he threatened to let his camels loose on the wheat fields and vegetable gardens. Six hundred camels would have consumed every bit of the winter fodder these nomads had grown, so the threat posed by the Brits was literally a death sentence for the whole tribe.
Compare and contrast the responses of a cash strapped, over-extended British military almost 100 years ago to the response of a cash strapped over-extended United States military today. The Brits send in a field grade officer with an enlisted driver and push him whatever horse, small mountain guns, infantry and machineguns they can spare, and throughout the entire war they could spare less than 100 men total to send into Balochistan. We start by spending billions and billions of dollars to set up high speed training centers staffed by people who know absolutely nothing about this land, culture or people, and even when it is recognized from on high (as it was in 2005) that these training centers accomplish next to nothing what do we do? Double down and spend billions more.
Haji Mehedin demonstrated something that old British General knew and something we could not learn in a million years due to the slow thinking, one size fits all problem solving of Big Government, which wholly owns and manages our Big Military. That something is that we don’t need to spend billions building and manning regional training centers full of ex-cops who cannot possibly teach much to their students because they have no idea what those students really do all day when they are out on the job. Nobody needed to train Haji Mehedin how to fight or what to do when ambushed by Taliban. He’s a Baloch tribesman, a tribal leader in fact, and to be honest he would have probably done better if we have given him an old Enfield bolt gun instead of the piece of shit AMD 65 that is standard issue for Afghan police.
We no longer send colonels out into the wilds of lawless lands like Balochistan with a single enlisted man assigned to them and a written order which says something like “stop the Baloch from raiding our supply trains, and if they won’t stop, kill them.” Or words to that effect – they did come from the British so I’m sure his written orders were a little more polished than I remember. We once knew how to fight a counterinsurgency while having to deal with a dysfunctional host nation government and fight on the cheap. We can’t do anything on the cheap now and we’re broke.
The military campaign in Afghanistan is apparently going well. I read that last Monday here in the Washington Post so it must be true. But two days ago the military effort in Afghanistan took a turn for the worst. I know that to be a fact too because I read it here in the Washington Post. The truth is that it is not terribly important how well the military is doing right now. The military is fighting to do the “Clear” portion of the “Clear, Hold and Build” component which is the backbone of our current counterinsurgency strategy. The people responsible for part of the holding and all of the building are about to ran out of the country in what appears to be another self inflicted wound.
President Karzai is determined to implement the ban on private security companies and apparently it has just dawned on the various embassy’s who are funding the reconstruction projects that this time President Karzai is serious. There are now frantic consultations happening in Kabul with the Americans in the lead and they are asking security companies for mountains of information, due in 48 hours, on the extent that new security platform will degrade technical results. When asked what exactly the new security platform is there is no answer because nobody at the embassy is exactly what the platform is. When asked who will pay for security provided by the the new platform headed by the Afghan National Police (ANP) there is no answer because nobody seems to know those details.
What the American Embassy (and the UN) have made perfectly clear is that they supports the Presidential decree saying that any government should be able to regulate who has guns and what they do with them. The Afghan government is not regulating access to guns for their citizens just those available to internationals who use them for self protection.
Why would the American government support a decree which is going to drive their implementation companies out of the country? It’s not like the American government doesn’t use armed security contractors back in the states. Contractors guard prisons, fly convicts around the country, guard court houses and important officials. Why the hostility to security contractors in Afghanistan? Who knows? This is Afghanistan.
I’ve been spending time in Zaranj, the capitol of Nimroz Province. We do a lot of work in Zaranj which is on the border with Iran and has a large population of Baluch tribesmen. It is a Dari speaking town in the predominately Pashtun south with 24 hour electricity from Iran and a surprisingly relaxed attitude towards the female half of the population. You do not see many women in Burkas and it is not uncommon to see them driving vehicles. There are not many social taboos associated with holding a job outside the home so we are doing several large vocational training programs for women in the city.
Zaranj is a desert border town of around 100,000 people just across the border from Milak Iran. The Indian Government’s Border Roads Organization just completed a modern hard top road from Zaranj to the ring road and the city of Delaram. That means there is now a modern hard ball road direct from the deep water port of Chabahar, Iran to the ring road of Afghanistan and beyond. That route could prove significant to somebody at some point in the future. For now it is hard to capitalize on having a modern route to a large seaport given that the run from Nimroz to Kabul is 500 kilometer ambush alley for truckers.
Zaranj is now starting to feel the love after years of getting by on their own. Last year Mullah John and The Boss flew in here (Zaranj is way out in the middle of nowhere) with little idea of what was going on and discovered a community that was ripe for development projects.
This year as the military and civilian surge continues to pour into Afghanistan the regional representatives from various USG agencies as well as the Marines are staging a series of meetings to see where they can help.
The meeting with the governor and his staff was interesting. In fact a case study in complexities of trying to provide meaningful development in Afghanistan. ISAF put out a press release about the meeting which can be found here. The governor said that he needed some help with his main canal and also needs some sort of medical treatment facility. He could also use a proper runway for the airport so commercial flights can resume. For now only our planes and the Marine Osprey’s land at the airport due to the ruts in the runway and packs of feral dogs that always seem to run across the runway when fixed wing planes are on their final approach.
The governor was probably in better spirits six weeks ago when they had their first meeting like this and talked about what kind of help he needed. He opened the meeting saying he was happy to see everyone again and that he hopes they are not gong to put a base near Zaranj because they don’t need any Taliban lurking about. He added that he hoped for maybe some action on the last discussion because although talking with friends is always good it is also good to see action resulting from these talks.
I don’t think ISAF has an intention of putting a base way out in Zaranj as there is no reason for them to be here but this getting action instead of talk stuff is going to be problematic. This is where good intentions drive expectations above what can met with the current contracting processes.
As noted in my last post nothing happens fast with the Regional Contracting Command. The Marines and their USG counterparts are trying to use money as a weapon. But if you are going to use money as a weapon you need to have money. They will get the funds to do the canal work and probably pave the airport runway too but that is months and months and months away. Plus the “Afghan First” policy which makes sense on a PowerPoint slide normally produces results like this (a story about botched police station construction) which I found today after surfing the net for .025 seconds.
More distressing is the lack of medical facilities in a such a large urban center. Currently people who can afford it seek treatment in Iran. The others have to make do with local doctors working out of offices with very little equipment. This shortfall clearly bothered the American delegation and they explained that it will be their first priority. But as the mission of our military and USG agencies remains first and foremost to support GIRoA (Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan) they stressed that whatever solution there is to this problem must be fixed in direct consultation with the Ministry of Health in Kabul. Hate to be blunt about this but that is essentially the same as saying nothing is going to happen except years of frustrating meetings resulting in zero action.
From my perspective we’re fighting an insurgency to support a government who is actively working against our interests which normally not be in their best interests but there it is.
Life continues on the border, hot, windy, dusty but secure. The Marines will fund the complete rehabilitation of the main water canal which will make life a little easier for the people of Zaranj but that is going to take time given the current contracting procedures. At some point we have to realize that speed is a weapon that doesn’t subtract from effectiveness. We are acting as if we have all the time and money in the world and we don’t.
Editors Note: A hat tip with many many thanks goes out to Tim of Panjwayi, the country manager of Team Canada for providing the detailed report and pictures from the 5 May attack in Zaranj.
The fighting season is rapidly ramping up to make this the bloodiest yet, which makes it the perfect time for President Karzai to go to Washington for a little face time with the Commander in Chief. What is to be accomplished during this meeting is easy to predict: Not one damn thing. This article in the Washington Post explains why – here is a quote from it: “‘We don’t have a plan yet,’ worries the senior military official.” With the operation to clear Kandahar on hold, that’s a huge problem. I’m worried too.
As often happens when the good President leaves to conduct important affairs of state the Taliban have declared that they will ramp up a major offensive targeting ISAF, the Afghan government and all internationals. This offensive even has a name; al Faath (victory) and it is scheduled to start tomorrow. Threats of this nature have come often in the past but this one is being taken more seriously by Afghan security forces and internationals working outside the wire. The military, as far as we can tell, ignores these kinds of things completely which is a shame because they could mount a one day surge which would impress the hell out of everybody earning them huge social capital. They could do that, but can’t. Let me explain why using the recent Taliban attack in the previously peaceful city of Zaranj, which is the Capital of Nimroz Province. Then describe how easy it could be to preempt this kind of activity using aggressive patrolling tactics.
On the 5th of May at approximately 0930 a squad of nine Taliban fighters in two Toyota Corollas attacked the Nimroz Provincial Council office and the Governors compound. They attacked sequentially in what appear to be a well planned raid. All nine attackers were dressed in ANA uniforms with AK47 assault rifles and at least one grenade. All nine were wearing suicide vests.
The raid force had failed to recently confirm their target reconnaissance because they were forced to stop and dismount well short of their breach points due to roads into the objective being cut for the installation of drainage pipes to the north and a counter-mobility barrier blocking their ingress from the south.
Five attackers from this first vehicle moved past this gate and stopped outside the entrance gate of the Provincial Council office where they engaged ANP (Afghan National Police) troops who were responding from the Governors compound to the south. There were also ANP units arriving to the north of the attackers on the street pictured above.
A second attacker detonated his suicide vest to breach the door into the Provincial Council’s office complex. The remaining three attackers rushed inside to fire into the council offices from the outer windows.
The attackers started running around the building firing at the Provincial Council members through the outside windows. The members were running around inside the building looking for a place to hide. At least one ANP guard was inside the building returning fire and many of the council members also started to return fire with their sidearms. One of the attackers was killed during this portion of the attack. The attackers then threw in a hand grenade (which detonated under a stairwell sending the frag back at the attackers) and turned their attention to the Governors compound.
Now things start to get really crazy. If you look at the google map above, you can see where the second corolla pulled up and emptied out four more fighters. This car was not found after the fight so the driver probably chickened out – it is unusual for the Taliban to use a driver for transport only in these assaults. The second vehicle was stopped well short of the Governors compound by a recently installed road block. By the time both assault teams had linked up there was organized effective fire coming at them from the Governors compound to the south and ANP troops arriving north of the attackers.
Their second vehicle – which was probably rigged as a vehicle born IED was unable to make it into the fight and retreated, so the raiding party was stuck and had to come up with a way to close the final 300 meters. So they did what all suicide vest wearing raiding parties do – they started breaching the walls of compounds adjacent to the Governors place by throwing themselves against the wall and detonating.
As the raid force breached each wall they moved into the compounds looking for a way to the Governors office. They did not fire at the compound owners or their families. Having breached their way into the compound above they then used another attacker to blow himself up at the doorway of an adjacent compound.
At this point the assault squad is down to four men and they had a mighty big wall to get through. Obviously these guys were not disposed to alternative courses of action – I guess when you strap on a suicide vest everything around you looks like a target. So hey diddle diddle straight up the middle they went.
The attackers never made it into the governors compound and the fighting ended with the suicide of the last surviving attacker. This attack was typical for Taliban operations. The planning seemed to be good as was the reconnaissance but the failure to confirm that reconnaissance after the raid was green lighted meant this mission was compromised from the start. The execution of the plan was typically amateurish with poor gun handling, poor grenade handling, poor marksmanship and no branch or squeal planning being the defining characteristics. As soon as the attackers found themselves cornered or stymied by an unanticipated obstacle they blew themselves up.
The attackers were reported to be younger males, not Afghan in appearance, with red faces and Pakistani-style shoes. Some witnesses believed them to be Pakistani, others Iranian. Everyone we talked to agreed that they weren’t locals. They were all wearing ANA uniforms and all nine had Suicide -IED vests, AK47s and at least one had a grenade.
There are several theories amongst the more credible local nationals (LNs) who are familiar with all the facts of the attack. One theory is that this was an attack staged by Quetta Shura Taliban. In 2008 and early 2009, there had been frequent S-IED attacks in Zaranj, approx one per month according to residents, until NDS conducted two big raids in March 2009, after which these attacks dropped to zero. The Nimroz Governor had been recently reporting the Zaranj City had been free from AGE/INS attacks for over one year. Some of the LNs who believe that this was a QST attack also believe that it was very ineffective on purpose. They believe that this wasn’t a poorly planned and executed attack, but simply a message sent to citizens and officials of Nimroz that they can attack whenever and wherever they please and they got off lucky this time.
Another theory held by many LNs, including most of the Provincial Council members and perhaps even the NDS, was that this attack was perpetrated by Iranian elements trying to destabilize the area and pass the blame on to the Taliban. There has been much recent confrontation along the Iranian/Afghan border in the vicinity of Zaranj, including Iranian border guards shooting Afghan civilians along the border at the rate of one per day, which goes unreported by GOA or media according to the LNs. Also, there is a war of words underway regarding water rights and a hydro-electric project. Several prominent LNs report that Iranian Border Guards didn’t let any traffic pass from Iran into Zaranj the day of the attack and the day before, which is highly suspicious to them. Also, it is believed that the Iranians have operatives inside Zaranj, working under the guise of the local Red Crescent and Khomeini Foundation organizations. The Governor of Nimroz has recently changed his public rhetoric from pro-Iranian to anti-Iranian. Also, approximately 2 weeks before the attack, members of the Provincial Council took local media to disputed areas of the border which have been occupied by Iran, where they are said to be stealing Afghan water. The Iranian Border Police sent a squad to dispel the group of politicians and media so the Nimroz Governor sent a platoon of ANA to intervene.
One thing is certain and that is it is easy – really easy to preempt these kinds of attacks with the proper deployment of ISAF troops. Everyone of these attacks occurs during the morning hours. Everyone of them involve bad guys wearing ANA or ANP uniforms and suicide vests being delivered to the objective by small private cars. All it would take to stop these kinds of attacks would be deploying joint military/ANP patrols in the neighborhoods but here is the catch – MRAPS won’t work. They are too big, the people inside cannot see, smell, hear, or feel anything outside of the massive iron MRAP. Plus the damn things would tear out the electrical wires in 97% of the suburban streets in Afghanistan. Preempting Taliban attacks in the cities and larger towns means Americans and Afghans riding around in the LTV’s (light tactical vehicle to the military; pick up truck to the rest of us) where they can see, hear and observe the local environment while applying the rule of opposites. This they can do in theory but not in practice because of “force protection” rules laid out from on high.
Zaranj is an important city which currently has no ISAF or Afghan Army units stationed near the city. One rifle company of American infantry could instantly make this city and its people safe and secure. All they need do is partner up with the local ANP and ride around the town looking for something or someone out of place. The Taliban are not tactically proficient at anything they try to do. Their target surveillance methods are about as effective as their small unit raids – which is to say not effective and therefore easy to spot. Their raid forces always look the same, men in uniforms with AK’s and bulky suicide vests packed into small passenger cars. How hard would it be to spot that? Five guys crammed into a Toyota are nothing more than helpless targets unless they have the time to deploy from their vehicles. Given two marine riflemen, four ANP troopers and a half dozen pissed off but disciplined oysters on the half shell you could whack groups like this day in and day out for the next nine years.
So tomorrow is al Faath day which may or may not bring some more of these attacks. The local people in the east do not seem worried nor are we, but you know what would really make an impression? To see the US Army out in force tomorrow morning manning checkpoints with the ANP and driving around the neighborhoods looking for things which are exactly opposite to what they expect to see. If we are supposedly focused on the population then the population should actually see us being focused on them and being proactive during times when the villains are up to mischief. Flooding Jalalabad with a few hundred of the 7 to 8 thousand troops in residence outside the city would do wonders for the morale of the locals and the morale of our troops. But the chances of that happening are zero. You can talk “COIN” and “population centric” all you want and it will make no difference to anyone here. Actions always speak louder than words.
The Fab Lab team has arrived and is now hard at work. They are blogging daily and you can monitor their progress here. They’re doing cool stuff like fabricating antenna’s to share our fatpipe with the local schools and NGO’s. They’re raising money to buy XO Laptops for every 6th grader in the local (Bagrami) school. They’re setting the local kids up with a tee shirt business to fund the Jalalabad FabLab operations and the local kids are beside themselves with opportunity that just landed on their doorstep.
We have had to run up to Kabul and back several times to get all the Fab Folk to Jalalabad. The Jalalabad to Kabul road is a vitally important supply route to both the military and the government of Afghanistan. There were several attacks on the road this past summer and there continues to be problems on it now despite the winter weather. We saw several interesting things along the route and the first was the number of French Army troops transiting from Kabul to Surobi.
Surobi is a large hamlet half way between Kabul and Jalalabad, last August the French suffered a humiliating defeat in the Uzbin valley which is just to the north of Surobi. The town has long been considered to be sympathetic if not supportive of Gulbiddin Hekmatyar and his party Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin (HiG.) We see sunburned adult males with high-water trousers, tennis shoes, and black turbans every time we pass through Surobi. They could be Sheppard’s or gold miners but it’s a safe bet their Taliban fighters hitting Surobi in for in-country R&R (rest and recreation).
The French have been serious about establishing a presence in Surobi since their first unfortunate encounter with the Taliban. They are keeping units in the field 24/7; have launched several operations which have netted some prominent local commanders (according to UN incident reporting). It’s good to see our ISAF allies taking the initiative, going on the offensive and clearing out such an important area.
But after you clear an area you have to hold it and it will be interesting to see how (or if) they do that. The operations in Surobi are not impacting the repeated attacks on the Kabul/Jalalabad road – with one exception. We’ve heard from reliable sources they tracked down and killed The Mechanic. It appears to be true too because it’s been months since we’ve seen his signature long range pin point RPG shots nailing tankers. The tankers are still getting nailed but only other portions of the road that allow ambush from rifle and machinegun range.
As noted in previous posts these occur in the Tangi valley area east of Surobi and in portions of Laghman Province below the Tangi. Both the ANP and ANA have posted small units along the road to augment the numerous permanent police posts. As you can see from the pictures below the positions they have set up are weak at best and their patrol routine, which appears to be sitting by the side of the road, is not proving very effective.
Here is an intel report from one of the PSC’s (the private security companies in Afghanistan do a lot of intel sharing with each other.)
Laghman Province, Qarghayi District, Route 1-area of Tangy
AOG Vehicle Checkpoint 05 January 2009, between 1630-1700 hrs
A doctor who works for a NGO was returning to Jalalabad from Kabul alone in his private car, when his vehicle was forced to stop by a group of armed men. The doctor was then questioned about his work and personal behaviour. He was finally allowed to proceed unharmed when, on seeing the cassette player in the vehicle, the armed men instructed the doctor to play a cassette found in the vehicle. The cassette played was a religious tape and satisfied the requirements of those who had stopped the car. Despite reported increased security force deployments, this is the third reported instance of AOG activity on Route 1 in the Tangy area since 31 Dec 08. All three incidents have occurred in daylight hours and two have been attacks on military vehicles. These incidents should demonstrate to all the risk of travel along Route 1 between Kabul-Jalalabad at any time of day. Any international staff using Route 1 should expect further instances such as that outlined in this report and seek alternative means of travel between Jalalabad-Kabul.
Along with the above report, we have made several trips the past few days along the route. A few ANA vehicles have been pulled off the side of the road about half way back to Kabul, and the soldiers were in a defensive posture behind their vehicles, weapons pointed at the high ground. Most likely some pot shots taken at the ANA as they passed thru.
The Kabul to Jalalabad route is one of the most important in Afghanistan. The effort being expended to secure this route is currently being wasted because the troops are being deployed in poorly sited positions and being tasked to do nothing other than sit there. There is an easy fix and that would be to embed and infantry squad into the Qarghayi District ANP headquarters with a mission style order. It should sound something like this; “Sergeant you’ve got six months to work with these guys and stop any and all attempts to attack this vital route, go down there scout it out, come up with a plan and I’ll see you in five days so you can brief me on your plan. ” Winning the IED battle requires that you kill the IED makers and you can only do that if they are unmasked by the people. To reach the people with the consistency required to gain that level of cooperation requires that you leave the big armored vehicles and spend time (lots of it) among the people. I am pretty sure that if you consult the Pentagon’s counterinsurgency manual you’ll find that it says more less exactly the same thing.
There is hope for those of us who use the Kabul Jbad road frequently and that is the appearance of a small American patrol right in the heart of the Tangy valley visiting the local ANA checkpoint. Inshallah they will be spending some time and effort trying to help the various small unit commanders develop a more aggressive plan to secure the route. We did not encounter any problems on our numerous trips to Kabul and back. What follows is some photo blogging about the Fab Folk we are hosting and some of the things they are up to.
Here’s a link to Martha’s first news story from her visit to Jalalabad.
The security situation in the western provinces of Afghanistan has deteriorated significantly over the last year. The first five years after the allied invasion were a time of peace and hope for the people in the west. The city of Herat is out west and Herat has 24/7 electricity from nearby Iran, functioning modern infra-structure, and showed much promise early on. But bad news started filtering out in late 2006. Stories about businessmen unable to operate or turn a profit due to the graft, corruption and incompetence of the Afghan government appeared in the press. Now Taliban fighters are active in Herat, Ghor and Badghis provinces and the brief flame of hope that Herat once represented is dying slowly but surely. Active Taliban units attract the attention of ISAF, which means fighting, fighting means the use of tactical air support by ISAF and every time tactical air hits a compound containing bad guys the other people in the compound are hit too.
The press and the Taliban make a big deal about this collateral damage repeating over and over that our aircraft are hitting houses full of innocent women and children. It is impossible for me or any other person not on the scene to determine if these claims have merit. But I do know how the ISAF targeting system works and I also know the safe guards in place to prevent such incidents which leads me to doubt the veracity of most (not all) of these stories. Our information warriors should be using the Taliban’s propensity for going to ground inside compounds full of women and children to our advantage but don’t.
We had a mission out west back in December of 2006 to conduct a wheat assessment survey. It was rumored that famine was about to strike in the remote villages out there and someone needed to go out and determine how much wheat was available and at what price. Readers who are familiar with the military effort here are probably thinking “wait, that is what the PRT’s are supposed to be doing”, which is true. But that would require extended missions outside the wire and that is something PRT’s do not seem to do, so we were contracted to do it for them. Long haul remote trips like that are our specialty so the Afghan American specialist assigned to this task contracted us to take him. I was gone two weeks, yet at times felt I had traveled back in time 200 years. Along the way we came across one of the most unbelievable sites in Afghanistan: the minaret of Jam.
We had serious time and budget constraints which forced us to drive around the ring road to Herat where the assessment was to begin. That could not be safely done today and it was dangerous two years ago too but not so much during the winter months. The picture below illustrates one of the reasons why being molested by the Taliban while traveling in the winter is rare.
I have always believed that throwing US contractors out onto the ring road with snow plows, heavy rescue trucks, and ambulances which can call in medical evacuation helicopters would have made all the difference in the world. The Afghans living along that route would have immediately understood the intent behind such a program and ensured the security of its participants. I can just imagine the old Rescue One Squad truck like the one I rode years ago as a Bethesda Chevy Chase Rescue Squad volunteer screaming down the roads with a half US / half Afghan crew. Clearing wrecks, administering advanced life support, helping those trapped in flooded or snow bound roads. You could have started something like that in 2004 but not now.
There are no snow plows in Afghanistan (except on the Salang Pass and they were left behind by the Soviets) so a traffic jam like this can last for several days. Working with my usual team of Tajiks we weaved through this mess in about 90 minutes by cajoling people to move a little here and a little there, and at times driving through the snow on the shoulder. Afghans will always cooperate and help an international who smiles at them, is polite, and knows a few words of Dari or Pashto. Being a good Marine the first thing I learned were the swear words which helped get us clear that day. Swearing about the weather and road and lack of snow plows allowed me to fit right in.
We arrived in Herat the next day and hit one of the better restaurants in town for an early afternoon meal. The weather was cold that day so of course we ate outside because my team knew I would be cold and wanted to see if I bitched or moaned about it. Silly buggers did they think I spent 20 years in the Marines for nothing? I know how to play this game and acted as if eating out in 40 degree cold was exactly what I wanted to do. This made Little Daud (pronounced Dow ood which is Dari for David and a common name) glum. He had bet Big Daud and Medium Daud (there are three in my crew) that I would make them move inside and now owed a little coin to his cousins. Little Daud underestimated my Dari comprehension thus allowing me the pleasure of taking the piss out of him while I sat freezing and eating a great lunch.
The Marco Polo Inn in Herat has a wing for us foreigners with heaters in the halls and rooms, sit down toilets, and TV’s playing live CNN and the BBC news casts. I would have to wait for a trip to Peshawar of all places to be able to watch Fox News but man did I like the sit down toilet and heat. Afghan buildings are not heated and this was the last I was to see of a warm room and biased crappy western news for the next 10 days so I sat on the toilet watching TV just because I could.
We headed into Ghor Province the next day planning to take two days to reach Chaghcharan the provincial capital. Like most of the country the roads into Ghor are unpaved and often hard to follow. At times they peter out into dry stream beds or divide up into three different directions. A map and compass are critical if you are going to stay on track. When in the countryside you have two choices to overnight; camp out in the mud or stay on the floor of a local tea house. We choose the tea house route.
Life in the villages of this rural area has remained unchanged for many many years. There are a few modern conveniences, the people have access to motor transport, some have generators, and most have radios. The irrigation systems are primitive but works plus this is one area where the US AID contractors have had great success with their field veterinary units. These outposts, run by Afghans, provide vaccinations and medicine for local livestock which are the major source of food and income. But for all intents and purposes life in these villages has not changed for generations.
On our second day of travel my crew and Karim awoke with great excitement and anticipation. They would not tell me why, saying that I would not believe what we were going to see in a few hours. They were right. As we moved down a valley towards the Hari Rud River up popped the minaret of Jam. The tallest complete and authentic ancient minaret in the world, it is believed to have been built by the once great Ghorid Empire, who in the late 12th century ruled over what are now Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. Rumors about of this magnificent tower did not reach the west until 1944. They were not confirmed until a French archaeologist located it in 1957. For 700 years, since Genghis Khan had rampaged through the valley destroying the Ghorids it had been forgotten to history.
None of my Afghan colleagues had ever seen the Jam and a few had doubted its existence. There was one ANP policeman guarding the site and he told us no westerner had ever been here before as far as he knew. I was excited soon convincing myself I was the first westerner to see the Jam in 40 years. After this trip I flew home for Christmas and picked up a book in the Dubai airport by a Brit named Rory Stewart. Turns out he had walked the exact route I was driving with just a dog, a back pack and walking stick. His book had an entire chapter on the Jam Minaret and the surrounding Turquoise Mountain complex. I thought I was ballsy being there with just 6 other guys. Took a little wind out of my sail that book did. Rory lives in Kabul now and is restoring an old bazaar with his Turquoise Mountain foundation and I hope to meet him some day. Walking from Herat to Kabul with nothing but a dog and a big stick in the middle of winter that is madness. But the kind of madness I can respect.
Crossing the Hari Rud River in the middle of the day was drama – the river was swollen and the ford point so deep that when we came back we hit this spot at 0200 knowing the water level would be much lower. In Chaghcharan we stayed at the house of a local judge who was related to Karim. We reported into the PRT which was manned by troops from Lithuania so that Karim could chat with the US AID representative. I don’t know how much the Lithuanians get out and about, but man did they have a gigantic, very cool looking sauna set up in their camp. After conducting our census and talking with the Provincial Governor we headed back out the next night with the aim of crossing to Hari Rud before dawn.
On the way out of Ghor one of our vehicles had a front strut weld break. Big Daud spotted a hand cranked welding machine on the side of the road in one of the villages so we stopped and asked for the owner to come help us fix the truck. That took about 10 minutes and cost all of two dollars. The weld has worked to this day Afghans may not have been afforded good educations but they are smart people.
The next leg of trip was into Badghis Province which would require us to go way up above the snow line. As you transit the lowlands you’ll see most of the houses are made of thick mud walls with domed roofs. Domed roofs are common in the lower elevations of the west and north because there is not enough timber to build flat roofs. The domes also are an efficient system in areas where there is a large variation in the daytime and nighttime temperatures. They vent the warm air at night and allow cool air in making it comfortable for the families below.
As we moved up into the Badghis Pass we hit a fair sized snow storm which required us to get the tire chains fitted.
Once in the pass we ran into a typical scene traffic jammed up due to heavy snow and trucks with bald tires and no chains. Once again the crew got out and started moving traffic out of our way.
The capitol of Badghis Province is Qala-i-Naw and Spain has the PRT there. We stayed at the local RRD (rural rehabilitation department) office although Karim and I could probably get onto the PRT’s overnight our escorts could not and leaving them to fend for themselves is uncool. Tajiks from the Panjshir valley are not always welcomed in these parts despite the fact that the population is majority Tajik so we stick together, at all times and in all places.
Qala-i-Naw reminded me of an old western town like Deadwood. Mud, mud and more mud. We took a census of the wheat lot and moved out because heavy weather was coming in and we didn’t want to be stuck there.
The drive out was easy as we beat the storm here is a great shot of medium Daud up on the pass.
We could not make a trip like that today even in the snows of winter. I saw a news article about a BBC film crew that went to the Jam Minaret last year to film a special. They took 60 ANP policemen with them. That is unquestionably overkill, in the remote west the chances of running into AOG bands numbering more than a dozen are around zero. It probably cost the BBC a fortune too but who cares? They’re spending tax payers’ money and people do not seem to care what something costs when they are spending tax payers’ cash.
There is little doubt that the region is much more dangerous then it was just two years ago, ten times more dangerous then it was four years ago and twenty times more dangerous then it was six years ago. See the trend line?